Given all the headlines this season regarding allegations about illegal payoffs and coaching improprities, the last thing the NCAA needs right now are more bad stories. They would rather the focus remain on all the conference tournaments, Selection Sunday, March Madness, etc.
But instead, situations in Memphis, Tennessee and Storrs, Connecticut, have refocused attention on the ugly side of college basketball. That is the win or else mentality that permeates the sport, despite the myths about student athletes, amateurism, and the value of education.
At the University of Memphis, a famed coach is no doubt on his way out after only two seasons. Tubby Smith has won an NCAA title at Kentucky, and enjoyed success at Minnesota and Texas Tech. But Saturday his University of Memphis Tigers blew a 13-point halftime lead to Cincinnati, going 5 for 27 from the field in the second half on the way to a 70-60 loss that ended any chances for a surprise NCAA Tournament berth. They may or may not get an NIT bid.
With attendance plummeting, stories abound that Smith is about to get dumped and replaced by Penny Hardaway, a local legend and former University of Memphis and NBA Star. Hardaway is now both a successful high school and AAU coach in Memphis, and widely viewed as someone who can get the gifted local high school players to stay home.
The fact Smith hasn’t been able to recruit top local talent, and that his attorney recently blasted school officials and Hardaway in a high voltage public statement, make it look apparent that the university is about to eat the remaining years of Smith’s contract and let him go, despite owing him over nine million dollars.
At UConn, word leaked out that school officials are about to fire head coach Kevin Ollie for cause, a move that gets them out of any remaining fiscal obligations. Just four years ago, Ollie was the talk of college basketball after leading UConn to a national title. He turned down NBA overtures to sign a big extension.
But the combination of subsequent poor seasons and now allegations of recruiting violations have eroded Ollie’s standing. Since much of this remains in the murky allegation realm, the bottom line is Ollie has gone from favored son to scapegoat.
In both cases these coaches are not blameless. Smith did rally the Tigers to seven wins in their final nine games, but not attracting local talent and alienating the fan base hurt his cause. If Ollie did actually commit recruiting violations, it is hard to defend him, though it is interesting that his predecessor Jim Calhoun operated pretty much with impunity for years, and did some of what is now being allegedly placed at Ollie’s doorstep.
While the NCAA prattles on about the ills of professionalism, they make billions off unpaid players. Coaches do profit, but these cases reveal the tightrope they in turn must walk. The entire situation continues to be one that is inherently flawed, and increasingly not workable. When and whether it changes remains to be seen.